Robert Browning: Poems

Robert Browning: Poems Quotes and Analysis

But wherefore rough, why cold and ill at ease?

Aha, that is a question! Ask, for that,

What knows,—the something over Setebos

That made Him, or He, may be, found and fought,

Worsted, drove off and did to nothing, perchance.

There may be something quiet o'er His head,

Out of His reach, that feels nor joy nor grief,

Since both derive from weakness in some way.

Caliban Upon Setebos, ll. 128-135

In this passage, Caliban reveals much of his theory about Setebos and indicates his inability to imagine a God that does not resemble him. Here, he wonders whether Setebos (his version of God) is just a bitter subordinate beneath a greater power (the "quiet") that Setebos cannot understand. The fact that Caliban imagines a deity having the same qualities of resentment that he harbors in himself suggests both the creative instinct that Browning explores in the poem and the limits to our search for greater meaning. It also stands as a charge against the science movement of Browning's day, which sought to define God through perceptions of the natural world.

That moment she was mine, mine, fair,

Perfectly pure and good: I found

A thing to do, and all her hair

In one long yellow string l wound

Three times her little throat around,

And strangled her. No pain felt she;

I am quite sure she felt no pain.

Porphyria's Lover, ll. 36-42

This passage, in which the poem's narrator murders Porphyria, is wonderfully grotesque. The murder itself is less important than the way the narrator believes it to have been a noble act of immortalizing a moment of purity. The extent of his delusion is clear in the final two lines, where he assures himself she felt no pain, a protestation that reveals his delusional inability to consider what he has actually done. The whole poem works to reveal a criminal rationalizing his grotesque behavior, which is reflected here and continues to manifest through his final proclamation that God has not judged him for his act. This disconnect between the order and rationality and the chaos of human behavior is a theme Browning continued to explore throughout his career.

Oh sir, she smiled, no doubt,

Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without

Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;

Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands

As if alive. Will't please you rise? We'll meet

The company below, then. I repeat,

The Count your master's known munificence

Is ample warrant that no just pretence

Of mine for dowry will be disallowed;

Though his fair daughter's self, as I avowed

At starting, is my object. Nay, we'll go

Together down, sir.

My Last Duchess, ll. 43-54

Here, the duke reveals his natural charm and facility with language even as he confesses to having killed his former wife for her joviality. Notice how he maintains a dignified air in describing the murder so subtly: "I gave commands; Then all smiles stopped together." The closing of this passage gives the reader some answer to why the duke tells the story – he speaks to the envoy of a new potential wife, and he is trying to ensure her father does not skimp him on the dowry. Even as the duke reveals such obsessive control here, he remains disarmingly charming as he ignores the class distinction of the envoy by suggesting "we'll go/Together down, sir." In this passage are all the virtues of Browning's use of the dramatic monologue, which explores the contradictions of the human psychology rather than making any easily classified moral judgment.

There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met

To view the last of me, a living frame

For one more picture! in a sheet of flame

I saw them and I knew them all. And yet

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

And blew. "Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.''

Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came, ll. 199-205

This stanza, the closing of the poem, has Roland standing atop the Tower he has sought for so long, beholding the images of all the men who attempted to find the Tower before him and failed in the process. Roland has spent the entire poem (and a long time before it begins) on a miserable quest through a grotesque, dying landscape even as he knows how unlikely victory is, considering all those who died before him. Further, the Dark Tower itself might offer no reward but doom. Having completed the quest here, Roland confronts the truth of his victory. Though he stays ambiguous about the locale and the Tower itself, he does reveal a moment of triumph in both confronting those whose legacy he carries with him, and then declaring his individuality through the horn call. Whether this is an ironic call of triumph (since he might have merely joined these men in death) or not remains for the reader to decide.

There's a great text in Galatians,

Once you trip on it, entails

Twenty-nine distinct damnations,

One sure, if another fails;

If I trip him just a-dying,

Sure of heaven as sure can be,

Spin him round and send him flying

Off to hell, a Manichee?

Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister, ll. 49-56

Here, the speaker of the soliloquy reveals how demented his hatred of Brother Lawrence is. The poem takes a darker turn in this stanza as he reveals his desire to not only kill his assumed enemy, but also to damn him to hell. There is great irony in this desire, considering that the main reason the speaker gives for his hatred is that Brother Lawrence is inadequately pious. The truth is that the speaker's desire, to damn another human being, is far more impious than the simple crimes he uses to justify his hatred. There is a shrewdness in the reasoning here as well, in that it shows the level of the speaker's obsession and further drives home the irony of a monk who would wish hell on another.

And so, about this tomb of mine. I fought

With tooth and nail to save my niche, ye know:

— Old Gandolf cozened me, despite my care;

Shrewd was that snatch from out the corner South

He graced his carrion with. God curse the same!

Yet still my niche is not so cramped but thence

One sees the pulpit o' the epistle-side,

And somewhat of the choir, those silent seats,

And up into the aery dome where live

The angels, and a sunbeam's sure to lurk;

And I shall fill my slab of basalt there

The Bishop Order his Tomb at St. Praxed's, ll. 15-25

This passage marks the bishop's first mention of his intended tomb, the creation of which is ostensibly the motivation for his rambling deathbed speech. In it are contained most of the motivations that drive his lust for power. One is Gandolf, whom he considers a rival even though Gandolf is long dead. One gets the sense that the bishop was driven towards reaching his ambition less by religious passion than by resentment. And yet the second half of the passage adds a level of irony in the way the bishop continues to think in divine terms, believing he should have a luxurious tomb in the middle of St. Praxed's church so as to be closer to divine subjects like the angels. The irony and contradiction continue to manifest through the poem as the bishop both demands his legacy be commemorated and accepts that once dead, he will not matter.

For, don't you mark? we're made so that we love

First when we see them painted, things we have passed

Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;

And so they are better, painted — better to us,

Which is the same thing. Art was given for that;

God uses us to help each other so,

Lending our minds out. Have you noticed, now,

Your cullion's hanging face? A bit of chalk,

And trust me but you should, though! How much more,

If I drew higher things with the same truth!

That were to take the Prior's pulpit-place,

Interpret God to all of you! Oh, oh,

It makes me mad to see what men shall do

And we in our graves! This world's no blot for us,

Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:

To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

"Ay, but you don't so instigate to prayer!"

Fra Lippo Lippi, ll. 300-316

In this justification for painting naturalistically, showing the world as it actually looks rather than painting stylized subjects for religious purposes, Fra Lippo Lippi gives a philosophy of art in general. He does not provide that an artist always reveals new insight to an audience, but allows that audience to rediscover it in a new, grander way. To do otherwise, to pretend towards insight, strikes him as pretentious. The irony, revealed here, is that though Lippo does not intentionally paint religious subjects, he believes his work has a transcendent appeal as it seeks to find the world's "meaning." The Church, on the other hand, lives under a strict rule and can see art only in terms of whether it helps "instigate to prayer." The charge is more than just an attack on the Church's hypocrisy; it is also an analysis of the way an artist trying to break new ground must confront the difficulties that comes with such ambition, a difficulty Browning would have understood personally.

Well, less is more, Lucrezia: I am judged.

There burns a truer light of God in them,

In their vexed beating stuffed and stopped-up brain,

Heart, or whate'er else, than goes on to prompt

This low-pulsed forthright craftsman's hand of mine.

Their works drop groundward, but themselves, I know,

Reach many a time a heaven that's shut to me,

Enter and take their place there sure enough,

Though they come back and cannot tell the world.

My works are nearer heaven, but I sit here.

The sudden blood of these men! at a word--

Praise them, it boils, or blame them, it boils too.

I, painting from myself and to myself,

Know what I do, am unmoved by men's blame

Or their praise either.

Andrea del Sarto, ll. 78-92

Here is the core of Andrea's regret and self-hatred. Though he is able to paint "faultless" paintings without any strong effort, he considers himself "judged" because he lacks the soul, the "light of God," that drives the other great Renaissance painters. He thinks of heaven in terms of perfection, but realizes that his own "faultless" perfection actually keeps him stuck in himself whereas the greater painters reach "a heaven that's shut to [him]." The deep ambition and regret provides the motivation for his address to Lucrezia, during which he chooses a path of cowardice, a rationalization for not risking messiness in hopes of achieving greatness. Through the contemplation of an artist's choices, Browning also can explore here the more universal question of whether we ought to live our lives with great ambition and risk, or with comfort and mediocrity.

"I say, that as the babe, you feed awhile,

"Becomes a boy and fit to feed himself,

"So, minds at first must be spoon-fed with truth:

"When they can eat, babe's-nurture is withdrawn.

"I fed the babe whether it would or no:

"I bid the boy or feed himself or starve.

"I cried once, 'That ye may believe in Christ,

"Behold this blind man shall receive his sight!'

"I cry now, 'Urgest thou, for I am shrewd

"And smile at stories how John's word could cure—

"Repeat that miracle and take my faith?'

"I say, that miracle was duly wrought

"When, save for it, no faith was possible.

"Whether a change were wrought i' the shows o' the world,

"Whether the change came from our minds which see

"Of shows o' the world so much as and no more

"Than God wills for His purpose,—(what do I

"See now, suppose you, there where you see rock

"Round us?)—I know not; such was the effect,

"So faith grew, making void more miracles

"Because too much; they would compel, not help.

A Death in the Desert

In this passage, St. John admits to having forged a miracle in his evangelical mission, a charge that has made him a fugitive and forced him to escape to the desert, where he now speaks on his deathbed. The shrewdness he exhibits in his reasoning for having done so – believers need to be spoon-fed sensory proof in order to ensure their faith – shows him to be rational and not solely driven by instinct. Further, he is well aware of his individual role in the mission; he has not subsumed himself entirely before Christ. However, his motivation comes off as highly sincere, since he believes that we find God in ourselves, "from our minds" if we are led to the realization. In other words, they are not mutually exclusive qualities, but rather dependent on one another in John's view. By accepting our subjective selves and exploiting our own potential, we can come closer to heaven, and find true faith that needs no outside proof to fortify it. In short, truth is both absolute and malleable, and provided that our quest and longing are sincere, we can manipulate the physical world without guilt.

"As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,

"Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:

"What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

"Dust and ashes!" So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.

Dear dead women, with such hair, too--what's become of all the gold

Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.

A Toccata of Galuppi's, ll. 40-46

These closing stanzas from the poem reveal the deep motivation for the speaker's poem. He began by considering the joyful music that Galuppi once made in Venice; it brought him happiness, especially in thinking of how contemporary audiences might have learned to confront impending death through listening to lovely music. However, thinking of those people has only led the speaker to remember they were "merely born to bloom and drop," and the music ironically speaks of death rather than joy. Both the music and his mood are ironic, since they contain a contradiction, and both are referenced in these final lines. Further, there is a suggestion that for a sensitive person, even outwardly pleasant art contains a melancholic edge, since pleasure is transient and ultimately bows before the inevitable tragedy of death.